Loud As The Rolling Sea: Lee Robinson
Saving the stories of elders was the goal when several community groups came together in Yellow Springs a dozen years ago. They understood the rich history of civil rights activism in Green County and knew from experience that it reflected what was happening all over the country.
In 1955, a Black teenager named Emmett Till was murdered by whites in Mississippi. His death sparked intensive civil rights protest all over the country, but especially in the American South in the 1960s. Emmett Till's murder still cast fear into the hearts of Black parents everywhere, including here in Southwest Ohio. In 1964, during what was called "Freedom Summer," James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, young civil rights workers from the north, were killed in Mississippi.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: Schwerner and Goodman had family members at Antioch College. Yellow Springers were catalyzed to act when a white barber named Louis Gagner refused to cut the hair of blacks in his shop downtown, a prolonged protest began. Students and faculty from Antioch, Wilberforce and Central State joined with community members to force Gagner to integrate. WYSO covered that story for years.
WYSO reporter: Five demonstrators kept picketing. So Sheriff Bradley read the injunction.
Sherriff Bradley: If you would cut the pickets to four, they will not see any arrests made, however if that is not done, I have no other alternative.
WYSO reporter: The local civil rights demonstrators sang "We Shall Overcome" the battle hymn of the integration movement. The National Association for the Advancement of White People countered with "God Bless America." When no one dropped out of the picket line, all five demonstrators were arrested. They were loaded into a Yellow Springs police car for the trip to the Greene County Jail in Xenia.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: A young Black man named Lee Robinson got involved in the Gegner protest. He had graduated from Yellow Springs High School, and his parents were part of a large community of Black professionals. In his interview, Robinson remembered that his parents, like so many others, tried to convince their child that taking part in those protests was dangerous.
Lee Robinson: And they felt, 'Hey, we have succeeded.' They didn't realize they had not succeeded, but they thought they had succeeded. And they thought the children would probably do relatively well if basically, 'Keep your mouth shut, don't rock the boat.' People who were in control at that time, professors and what have you said we would rather not our students get involved, period.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: So you were at Central State when that happened?
Lee Robinson: I was at Central State there when that took place. And at that time, they were more concerned with making certain that students behaved and didn't walk on the grass or anything of that nature because they didn't want the Dayton Daily News or anybody else over there putting a light, a negative light on students from Central State, going down and getting involved in these what at that time were demonstrations. And even today, I look back and I think that, you know, if I had children and looking at the Chaney and Emmett Till situation, I'm thinking and probably would have said the same thing.... because the judicial system was so bad. So when you got parents who are now educated and have good jobs sitting there thinking that now my child is going to go down there, get yourself all embroiled in something, there's no way for me to call down to law enforcement to find out whether they're alive or well.
Too many years hadn't passed that we had the Chaney and Emmett Till situation, and our parents really became fearful. And perhaps that was a carryover from the administrators and professors at Central State. And that's why I often wonder today when I look at all the demonstrators, it is an ongoing problem. Just like I said, like Lou Gegner - You think you've resolved it? And the question you asked me earlier was, has that diminished? Is that feeling the same? People feel the same way. But you see that segregation integration thing? It's a wonderful thing if you got the right people in the right places because a phone call can change a lot of things. And that's what Yellow Springs used to do. If you were to write people, things didn't happen to you. But if you weren't part of that group, you'll feel the wrath!
Dr. Kevin McGruder: That was Lee Robinson of Yellow Springs, now retired after a career at Vernay Laboratories. His interview was edited by Truth Garrett. I'm Dr. Kevin McGruder, associate professor of history at Antioch College.